The myth of Pakistani nationalism

August 14, 2014

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Quaid-e-Azam arrives in Allahabad to address the 1942  All India Muslim League session.
Quaid-e-Azam arrives in Allahabad to address the 1942 All India Muslim League session.

Nationalism is viewed as a double edged sword: it can unite or fragment a country. At a time when Pakistan is celebrating its 68th independence anniversary, one needs to examine in some detail why Pakistani nationalism, which should have been strengthened by now, is considered can a myth and not a reality? Why does Pakistan lack nationalistic vigour and spirit and how the country be united by promoting its identity based on the feelings of oneness, cohesiveness and commonality?

When Pakistan emerged on the world map as an independent state, it was considered a unique country because of its heterogeneous cultural, religious and geographical characteristics. It was the only country which was separated by 1,000 miles and the only common bond between the western and eastern wings of Pakistan was religion. But, Pakistan became the first post-colonial state to have disintegrated on the basis of ethnic nationalism. Bengali nationalism, which got an impetus when Bengali language was denied equal status along with Urdu by the founders of Pakistan became a symbol of nationalistic resistance against the West Pakistani dominated elite. The disintegration of Pakistan in 1971 raised a fundamental questions: why Pakistani nationalism was not promoted by the successive regimes which came to power after August 1947 and was religion in contradiction with nationalism?

Coming back to nationalism, it is a sense of loyalty towards a nation which is shared by people having a common past, cultural or religious heritage. Nationalism seeks to identify a behavioral entity i.e. the nation and then to pursue certain political and cultural ethos, goals on behalf of it. Hans Kohn defines nationalism as: “A state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due to the nation state”. As mentioned in the Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, “Nationalism can be used in two related senses: first to identify an ideology and secondly to describe a sentiment.”

There are several forms of nationalism which have emanated since its emergence in Europe after the treaty of Westphalia, 1648. Various forms of nationalism are: ethnic nationalism, cultural nationalism, territorial nationalism, economic nationalism and religious nationalism.


The lack of ownership of the country by the concerned stakeholders tends to prevent the promotion of Pakistani nationalism, writes Dr Moonis Ahmer


Pakistan’s neighbour India is more diversified and heterogeneous as compared to its western neighbor, because unlike Pakistan which has around a dozen ethnic and lingual groups and few religious communities, India has more than 100 languages and ethnic groups. India has followers of all holy and man- made religions and the identity of India which was the basis of its independence movement from the British tutelage was the slogan of Indian nationalism spearheaded by the Indian National Congress.

What can be the basis of Pakistani nationalism and why has it been opposed by some groups? Four different perceptions exist about opposing and supporting Pakistani nationalism. First, since the inception of Pakistan there exists a strong group which rules out the very phenomenon of Pakistani nationalism because according to them Pakistan came into being on the basis of Islam which is the ultimate source of unity among people of the country. Islam as the common bond among the people of Pakistan rules out seeking other sources of unity based on language, ethnicity and culture.

Secondly, instead of Pakistani nationalism, religious nationalism based on Islam should have been the policy of successive regimes which came to power in the country since August 1947. In Pakistani nationalism, the focus will not be on Islam which is the actual basis of the existence of the country but on the unity of various lingual and ethnic groups, and religious nationalism can be the only source of uniting the people of Pakistan. However, the two perceptions advocating religion and religious nationalism to be the ideological pillars of Pakistan failed to realize a fundamental contradiction in their approach. If Islam was the source of the creation of Pakistan, language, ethnicity and culture also existed as strong forms of identity. It was primarily the issue of nationalism, whether Pakistani or religious, which led to the upsurge of Bengali national identity as opposed to the Pakistani identity, as the latter was identified with the oppressive West Pakistan dominated regimes.

Thirdly, the perception that without advocating and practicing Pakistani nationalism, the country could not be saved from the menace of religious and ethnic extremism. Those advocating Pakistani nationalism gave the example of various countries where despite cultural, ethnic, lingual and religious diversities, the feeling of oneness, unity and national integration led to the strengthening of those states. But, if the example of United States is given to prove that a country which was established as a result of war with Britain in 1776 and which managed to survive and emerge as a world power, they undermine the fact that the American state was secular since its inception and it got a leadership which worked hard to integrate their country regardless of sectarian and ethnic cleavages.

Furthermore, the United States had no major problem with neighbours and the foremost priority of successive governments which came to power in America since July 4, 1776 emphasized on the rule of law and building a uniform educational system. Whereas, from the beginning, Pakistan lacked a dynamic, visionary and honest leadership. Feelings of oneness, unity and common ground in a country are not created overnight but are generated as a result of a process. Unfortunately, except the leadership of the Quaid, which existed only for a brief period of time after the creation of Pakistan, no leadership in Pakistan was able to motivate its people for one nation. His teachings, which would have been a source of Pakistani nationalism, were abandoned and the country drifted into the path of dictatorship, bad governance, religious extremism, sectarian and ethnic divide. And lastly, the perception that the feeling of a common enemy and striving for a better future will create conditions for Pakistani nationalism. The promotion of threat perception against India became a major policy on the part of various regimes before and after 1971 in order to create feelings of patriotism and oneness.

Three major realities which exist in Pakistan also negated the ideal of Pakistani nationalism. First, Pakistan is perhaps the only country where the national language, i.e. Urdu is the mother tongue of merely 10 percent of the people of Pakistan. The language controversy in Pakistan didn’t end with the creation of Bangladesh. In the post-1971 Pakistan, as it happened in case of Sindh, demands were raised also in other provinces to declare their languages as national languages. But there is still strong resistance to oppose such demands. For example, in early July this year as reported in the press, Awami National Party (ANP) Senator Haji Adel suggested amendment in Article 251 of the constitution of 1973 where the word ‘language’ should be substituted with the word ‘languages.’ According to that article, the national language of Pakistan is Urdu but the Senator wanted that the concerned article be amended to mention that the national languages of Pakistan are Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto, Balochi and Seraiki and “arrangements shall be made for being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years from the commencement of that Act. He suggested that, in Clause 2 for the word ‘Urdu’ should be substituted with the phrase ‘the national languages’ and in Clause four for the words ‘National language’ be changed with National Languages.”

But his demand failed to get the support from the Federal Law Ministry which argued that according to Clause 3 of article 251 of the Constitution, provincial assemblies were empowered to prescribe measures for teaching, promoting and using the provincial language in addition to the national language. Likewise, in the National Assembly, member Marvi Memon also moved a bill to grant the status of national language to Balochi, Bahi, Sindhi, Pushto, Punjabi, Shina, Seraiki and Hindku. However, the bill was defeated by 4-1 in the standing committee of the National Assembly.

The lack of ownership of the country by the concerned stakeholders also tends to prevent the promotion of Pakistani nationalism. In a situation when those who matter are least concerned about the deteriorating condition of the country and their priorities revolve around their personal, family or group interests, a sense of ownership for the land and people of Pakistan cannot develop.

Pakistani nationalism cannot be created or established by celebrating Independence Day or by symbolic measures but it requires commitment, will and determination at the grassroots’ level. A country which was established as a result of sacrifices rendered by millions of people is in a vacuum because there is no leadership or political force which can unite the people of Pakistan on the basis of oneness and for a cause for a better future. The void which exists in Pakistan in terms of leadership is not new and is the result of a process of endless corruption, nepotism, bad governance, absence of the rule of law and a general approach held by people with influence that they don’t own Pakistan but over a period of decades they have played havoc with the people and resources of their country

Since Muslims constitute an overwhelming majority of the population of Pakistan, therefore, Islam cannot be threatened or is in danger, wherea, Pakistan’s survival is at stake because of enormous internal and external threats. Therefore, what is required in order to save Pakistan from further instability and erosion of its sovereignty is the promotion of Pakistani nationalism by focusing on three major things. First, ownership of land, people, resources and culture of the country. For this purpose, one needs to take pride that Pakistan is a relatively new country but its culture and civilization is quite old. Instead of becoming a victim of complexes, it is high time that the government and also civil society think of launching a program projecting the culture of Pakistan and how tolerant it is. Second, the text books, particularly at the school level should focus on teaching students about the value and worth of a country and upholding the rule of law. Unfortunately, students, particularly at the elementary level are not trained how to observe law and there is no proper training to make them good human beings and responsible citizens.

Thirdly, reforming the country’s political culture by inducting professionalism in the attitude, behavior and programme of political parties. Here one should not forget the fact that Pakistan was created as a result of a mass movement led by a political party. In civilized societies, political parties are supposed to provide viable leadership to people and resolve issues which are critical in nature. The problem with Pakistan’s political culture is that political parties are not political parties in the first place but are fiefdoms in which patronization, greed, lust for power and corruption are the essence.

The writer is Meritorious Professor and Dean Faculty of Arts, University of Karachi